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Central Asia Report: August 24, 2001

24 August 2001, Volume 1, Number 5

SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANIZATION MEETS IN ALMATY AND BISHKEK. Expert delegations from the six countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) finished a two-day meeting in Almaty on 21 August, approving a draft intergovernmental agreement identifying the principal goals of regional economic cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The proposed document, laying out a plan to create an improved trade and investment environment, is expected to be signed by a 14 September summit of SCO prime ministers in Almaty. The organizing committee for that summit will be chaired by Kazakh Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev.

The SCO, which was announced at a meeting of six heads of state on 15 June, is not yet a formal entity established on any legal basis. But it will become one after a charter-signing ceremony at a planned SCO summit next summer in St. Petersburg, said Vitalii Vorobyev, special representative of the Russian president, at a briefing in Almaty after the meeting. The senior Russian diplomat stressed that SCO members were not forming a bloc and that, once the organization was formally constituted, other countries could join.

Although SCO delegates in Almaty emphasized economic cooperation, analysts have noted a possible military dimension as the signatory countries share concerns about threats to regional stability from Islamist terrorists and separatists. Kazakh commercial television reported on 20 August that a four-day bilateral meeting of Russian and Kazakh diplomats and defense officials was held behind closed doors in Almaty concurrently with the SCO gathering. According to the Kazakh Defense Ministry press service, the topic under discussion was security cooperation in areas that border China. But Kazakh media, including the commercial TV broadcast, were not shy about suggesting that "the meeting will discuss China's request to help stabilize the situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," where separatists from the indigenous Islamic Uighur minority have staged terrorist acts against the Chinese authorities.

An official delegation from Xinjiang gave substance to that speculation when it arrived in Almaty on 22 August, reportedly to discuss joint efforts against illegal migration, economic crimes, terrorism and extremism. The delegation consisted primarily of representatives of Xinjiang's security and police departments.

A second SCO expert meeting was held on 23-24 August in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek that directly addressed questions of coordinating activities against terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, the Kyrgyz national news agency Kabar reported. Specific joint projects are to be formulated at the SCO summit in September, and an SCO anti-terrorist center is planned, to be established in Bishkek.

Commenting on the SCO on 23 August in the Uzbek city of Ferghana, Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, gave short shrift to the organization's economic aspects and honed in on the security dimension: "Security, maintaining peace and stability in the Central Asian region and fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, and the quiet creeping expansion of extremism" are priorities for cooperation, Interfax quoted Karimov as saying.

Meanwhile this week in Beijing, the speaker of the Lower Chamber of the Supreme Council of Kyrgyzstan, Altay Borubaev, held talks with Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichenmet on 20 August, Xinhua and Kabar news agencies reported. The leaders praised one another's countries for mutual support in opposing separatism and safeguarding national sovereignty while stressing the SCO's importance in maintaining regional security. Borubayev thanked Beijing for backing Bishkek's crackdown on separatism and terrorism. Kyrgyzstan in turn backs China's position on Taiwan.

TRIAL OF KAZHEGELDIN CONTINUES IN OPEN AND CLOSED COURT. The trial being held in absentia against Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former Kazakh prime minister and President Nursultan Nazarbaev's chief political foe, moved into its second week in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Having spent the first several days focusing on the charges of corruption and abuse of power, state prosecutors turned to allegations of tax evasion and illegal firearms possession.

On 17 August, employees of Halyqtyq (National) Bank testifed that $100,000 in royalties for Kazhegeldin's book "Kazakhstan Under Conditions of Reform" were deposited in his bank account in 1997, but they failed to support the prosecution's contention that no income tax was paid on the sum. On 22 August, two officials of the Almaty Tax Department confirmed that the $23,000 of tax due was eventually received in 1998 together with a fine for late payment. Further allegations that Kazhegeldin had undeclared property in Belgium in his wife Natalya's name were discussed but remained unproven.

Also on 22 August prosecutors addressed the charge of illegal possession of arms involving a Stechkin-Abramov revolver. The ex-governor of Western Kazakhstan and his deputy each confirmed that the defendant had been presented the gun as a gift in 1996 while prime minister during a tour of a military factory in the western Kazakh town of Oral. Prosecutors said it was never subsequently registered, though.

Judge Betas Beknazarov announced that on 23 and 24 August the trial would be conducted behind closed doors, since some of the facts to be dealt with involved state secrets. The trial is expected to end on 24 August.

Kazhegeldin, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and Western Europe, has repeatedly maintained that the trial is politically motivated and instigated against him by President Nazarbaev, whom he has suggested should face trial himself in connection with allegations that he received multimillion-dollar bribes from Western oil companies (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 17-23 August, 2001). At a press conference in Almaty, 28 Kazakh intellectuals condemned the court proceedings and expressed their support for Kazhegeldin.

The Kazakh newspaper "Ekspress-K" reported on 17 August that a Kazakh delegation of law-enforcement officials was visiting the United States to press for an agreement between the Kazakh General Prosecutor's Office and the U.S. Justice Department on the extradition of criminals.

HEADS ROLL AGAIN IN TURKMENISTAN. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has been clearing political house in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the country's independence with a flurry of recent decrees sacking government officials in the provinces and in the capital, Ashgabat. On 20 August Turkmen Television reported that four deputy governors of districts in the country's northern Dashoguz region, along with one deputy governor from the central Ahal region, had been relieved of their posts. Three of the five were women. While all were fired for unspecified "grave shortcomings" in their work, Shirin Sahetgulyyeva of Dashoguz region's Yylanly District was additionally accused of "using her position in her own self-interest."

The following day Interfax and ITAR-TASS news agencies reported that Interior Ministry Colonel Kakabai Seyidov, who was in charge of a military warehouse, had been discharged and stripped of his rank "for an act that discredits the honorable position of an interior service officer," according to the presidential decree. An Interior Ministry source elaborated that Seyidov was "not paying the necessary attention to bringing up his children." His wife and son were recently arrested with about 3 grams of heroin which they were allegedly selling; a second son was convicted of robbery in February.

Another head rolled on 21 August as Niyazov demoted Ashgabat Mayor Ashiberdy Cherkezov to a city administration job, after criticizing him for the slow pace of construction of new showpiece buildings (notably a domed Palace of Justice and giant Defense Ministry, built by the French company Bouygues), schools, roads and parks that were supposed to be ready in time for the independence holiday in October. Cherkezov was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Berdimyrat Rejepov, who was in hot water himself earlier this month when Niyazov accused him of nepotism after Rejepov's brother was promoted to a top job at a state bank.

This spate of sackings by Niyazov is merely the last of many that have characterized his regime and affected not only government but the judiciary, the media and the military. Opinions differ on whether Niyazov is simply an exceptionally profligate firer or his appointees are exceptionally incompetent. Since June the president has sacked his minister of foreign affairs (for drunkenness); minister of communications; minister of water management; and minister of defense (see RFE/RL "Turkmen Report," 22 July 2001). Perceptions that Niyazov is ruling in an increasingly erratic manner have fed vague but persistent rumors this summer that a coup attempt may be in the offing.

OFFICIALLY, TAJIK REBELS ELIMINATED; UNOFFICIALLY, IMU MAY STILL BE AT LARGE. Operation Lightning, the Tajik government's anti-terrorist strike against rebel bands headed by Mansur Muakkalov and Rahmon ("Hitler") Sanginov, resulted in the deaths of the ringleaders and the destruction of their armed formations, and should be considered a great success, senior Interior Ministry officials said at a press conference on 20 August in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Muakkalov was killed on 20 July, almost a month after the operation was launched, and Sanginov on 10 August. Earlier this month, Tajik officials were claiming that over 60 terrorists had been killed. But at the press conference, reported by Asia Plus-Blitz and Tajik Radio, First Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov said 27 gang members had been killed. His claim that only nine government troops had been lost in the fighting is equally open to doubt. Throughout the operation official status reports have been self-contradictory, including two premature claims that the rebels had been annihilated. Ninety-four captured rebels have been charged with murder, hostage-taking, arms- and drug-dealing.

The authorities could claim a further anti-terrorist coup with the arrest of another anti-government rebel, Mustafo Taghoev, in Dushanbe on 20 August. He was charged with similar crimes. An ex-colonel in the special police, Taghoev was jailed once in 1999 but released in an amnesty (see RFE/RL "Newsline," 21 August 2001).

Recent strident efforts by the Tajik authorities to put their house in order give some credence to their repeated assurances that no militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are operating from Tajik territory. But according to a 20 August article in the Kyrgyz newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek," the secretary of the Tajik Security Council, Amirqul Azimov, admitted otherwise to his Kyrgyz counterparts "a few days ago" at a meeting in Tajikistan's Jirgatol district. He reportedly confided to them that Tajik troops had been specially assigned to stop IMU forces from entering Kyrgyzstan from Tajik territory. The newspaper cited Azimov saying Tajik authorities had discussed the IMU with representatives of Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, who promised to "kill without hesitation" any IMU fighters trying to cross into Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Earlier this month IMU commander Juma Namongoniy was put in charge of military operations against Massoud's Northern Alliance by the Taliban.

CIS OFFICERS PRACTICE 'CRUSHING' TERRORISTS. Command-post and staff exercises of the CIS joint Rapid Reaction Force opened on 22 August in the Kyrgyz village of Koy-Tash near Bishkek, where a motor-rifle battalion is deployed, and ended two days later in Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken region, Interfax and Kabar news agencies reported. About 30 officers from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan participating in the "Dostuk [Friendship]-2001" exercises familiarized themselves with maps and terrain and rehearsed various military tactics involving multinational units such as establishing roadblocks and coordinating a system of cipher communications, with a view to "crushing international terrorists groups in Central Asia," a Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman said. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev remarked that "terrorism, extremism and separatism are creating an arc of instability in the world," as quoted by Interfax: "The Arab-Israeli conflict, Uighur separatism in China and rebel operations in Central Asia and Chechnya are links in one chain," he said.

On 23 August Kazakh Khabar TV reported that a Kazakh battalion practiced a deployment in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan's Ala-Buka district, a possible entry-point for Islamist bandit formations crossing from Tajikistan.

Although Uzbekistan has dropped out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, Uzbek observers were invited to attend the exercises but declined. President Karimov told reporters on 23 August, "Our position is crystal clear: Uzbekistan is not joining any military or political alliances. We have pulled out of the treaty and are not going back," Interfax reported.

More large-scale exercises of the national battalions earmarked for the Rapid Reaction Force are tentatively scheduled for October, the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 August.

SWEEPING AMNESTIES IN HONOR OF 10TH-ANNIVERSARY INDEPENDENCE CELEBRATIONS. An amnesty announced by Uzbek President Islam Karimov on 22 August will affect the sentences of more than 50,000 prisoners, a majority of whom will consequently be released from jail, the Uzbek newspaper "Halq so'zi" reported. Most female convicts, invalids, persons suffering from serious diseases, men over 55, foreign nationals, and persons who were minors at the time of their sentence will be eligible for release, with the exception of those convicted of murder, terrorism, drug trafficking, or crimes against the constitution. "Halq so'zi" noted that amnesties have become an annual tradition in Uzbekistan on the eve of Independence Day (1 September). But this year's is more sweeping than any to date, a fact the newspaper attributed to progress "in all areas of social life, primarily in liberalizing the judicial and legal systems," adding that Karimov's decree "is a display of the highest humanity by our society and state."

AFP suggested more prosaically on 22 August that the amnesty was aimed at relieving jail overcrowding, citing information from the Uzbek Interior Ministry that there are nearly 64,000 prisoners presently housed in jails that were built to accommodate 54,000.

In recent years, Karimov has also released prisoners before anti-Islamist crackdowns, apparently to make room for anticipated new convicts.

In Dushanbe on 23 August, the lower chamber of the Tajik parliament unanimously approved a draft law "On General Amnesty" submitted by President Imomali Rakhmanov, Asia-Plus reported. The president told the session that the amnesty would apply to over 19,000 prisoners, including pregnant women and mothers with large families, minors, WWII veterans, invalids, deserters, foreigner nationals and about 1,000 convicts ill with tuberculosis. Twelve thousand prisoners will be released completely. The amnesty will not apply to terrorists, repeat offenders or those guilty of crimes against the constitution.

TURGANALIYEV GRANTED CLEMENCY IN KYRGYZSTAN. Kyrgyzstan has also been proceeding with an amnesty of its own, due to continue until the end of September. The country's main penal directorate reported that 9,438 prisoners have been pardoned so far, according to a Kyrgyz Radio broadcast on 21 August.

The most attention, however, was focused on President Askar Akaev's decision on 20 August to grant clemency to 60-year-old human rights activist and former leader of the opposition Erkindik (Freedom) Party, Topchubek Turganaliev, who was sentenced in September 2000 to 16 years in prison (reduced a month later to six years) for plotting to assassinate the president -- a charge that Turganaliyev maintains was fabricated by the National Security Service in order to remove him from the political arena.

At a 23 August press conference TurganAliyev stressed that, although his wife had pleaded for clemency for him, he had never apologized or begged for a pardon himself since that would have been tantamount to admitting his guilt, Interfax said. Announcing the pardon, Akaev stated that he was acting on recommendations from the Commission on Clemency, Kyrgyz political parties and indigenous NGOs, noting in particular Turganaliev's age and poor health. But TurganAliyev highlighted instead the role of the international community, including foreign media and human rights activists, in pressuring Akaev to release him. Most recently the United Nations drew attention to his case when the secretary-general's envoy for human rights, Hina Jilani, made a high-profile visit to Kyrgyzstan earlier this month and was denied permission to visit TurganAliyev in jail. Some observers in the West, where Akaev's rule is seen as increasingly authoritarian, have suggested that Turganaliev's release was a publicity stunt to mollify Western donors on whose largesse Kyrgyzstan's failing economy is largely dependent.

No such spotlight has been shone yet on Kyrgyz TV journalist Samangan Orozaliev, who was taken into custody in May in the town of Dzhalal-Abad, ostensibly for extorting bribes from local officials, the Kyrgyz newspaper "Res publica" reported on 18 August. When arrested, OrazAliyev was trying to film a program about corruption within regional government.